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Planning for Disaster
By Mary Terrass

In recent months and years, we have been awed by the courage demonstrated by child-care workers at the Pentagon, World Trade Center, and the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. While the probability that an event of this magnitude will occur again is very small, it is important that we take this opportunity to evaluate the emergency procedures we have in place and make improvements wherever we find a gap in our plans. Here are some basic guidelines for evaluating both the content of your plan, and the plan’s practical application.

1. Identify Your Resources
All licensed child-care programs are required to have plans for dealing with a fire, a natural disaster such as a tornado, or an outbreak of an infectious illness. Your plan might have been developed in cooperation with local emergency personnel, or it might have already been in place when you assumed responsibility for your facility. Now is an excellent time for you to develop personal relationships with the emergency personnel—firefighters, police officers, public health workers, etc.—who would most likely respond to your facility in the event of an emergency. Your insurance company would also be an excellent resource. Neighborhood resources, such as area businesses, schools, and other early learning facilities can also be important to the success of your plan. Finally, local trade associations, such as your state’s child care association or Family Daycare Provider’s Group, and the National Safety Council can be a resource for you in ensuring that you will receive the support you need in the event of an emergency.

2. Develop Your Plan
As you develop or refine your plan, be certain that you follow all applicable state and local regulations. Try not to make your plan so complex that people won’t be able to recall the necessary steps when faced with an emergency situation. Simple and effective plans should include:

o Identifying a primary evacuation site for your facility. This is probably a building or site that is open to the public during your hours of operation and is within a short walking distance of your facility. In the event that a disaster would strike the entire area surrounding your facility, it is wise to identify a secondary evacuation site. Be sure you stay in contact with the management of your primary and secondary evacuation sites during the course of a year to be sure that your selected sites will be available to you.

o Preparing an emergency duffle bag for each classroom. Include items such as bottled water, paper cups, snacks (crackers, dried fruit, or formula), a battery-operated radio and extra batteries, a blanket, first aid supplies, and current emergency contact information for each child and employee. Be sure the duffle bag is clearly marked and is not too heavy, so that staff can easily take it with them if they have to evacuate their classroom.

o Ensuring that you have current emergency contact information for each child. This information should include both home and work numbers for parents and others who are authorized to pick up a child, email addresses, cell phone numbers, and a photo of the child. The Red Cross also suggests that you have an out-of-town contact number for each child, so that if phone lines are down in the parents’ work area someone within the family’s network could be contacted with notification that the child is safe. The family would also know that they would call this out of town contact for updated information.

o Identifying a local radio or television station to be your source of broadcast communications. When parents enroll in your program, they should be told to tune into this channel or station to receive emergency information.

3. Communicate Your Plan
Now that your plan has been enhanced to cover a wide scope of emergencies, it’s very important that you communicate the plan’s components to all appropriate individuals, including staff members and emergency personnel. Both your primary and secondary evacuation sites need to be notified about the role they would play, and they need to have a copy of your plan. Be sure you have a consistent contact at your selected evacuation sites, so that communication can remain clear at all times. Parents also need to be well informed about your preparation for an emergency situation. This usually occurs during the enrollment/intake process, but it cannot be repeated often enough during the course of a child’s stay with you. Newsletters, email, and parent meetings can all be effective methods for communicating any changes or updates to your emergency plans.

4. Practice Your Plan
Licensed child care facilities are required to practice their emergency plans on a regular basis, and in most cases, they must document the working success of their plan (how long it took to evacuate the building, etc.). It’s always a good idea to have spontaneous practices so that your staff and children get used to reacting quickly whenever an emergency occurs. Be sure that your practice sessions include an actual visit to your evacuation site or sites. Keep in mind that when you have a change in staff, you need to share your plan for emergencies during orientation.

After a practice session, it’s very important to schedule a “debriefing” session with your staff. Talk with them about what worked well, and where you need to still improve your plan. You could also involve parents in one of your practice/debriefing sessions so they would see firsthand how well prepared you are for any emergency event. It is also wise to invite emergency personnel to participate in one of your practice sessions. They are usually very willing to be of assistance in this way, and they often have excellent tips for improving the speed and efficiency of your evacuation.

Mary Zenor Terrass is Director of Strategic Initiatives for Children’s World Learning Centers. In this role, she provides leadership to the company’s Education Department, focusing on curriculum development, employee training and quality training.